Holding uncertainty, living forwards

I’ve been thinking about robust uncertainty a lot lately. Viv said something in an email recently that struck this chord. The gist of it was confidence is not certainty but the willingness to act even when we’re not certain.

Way back in 2005 I quoted Chris Corrigan in similar territory:

Chaordic confidence describes the ability to stay in chaos and trust that order will emerge. It’s a subtle art, but it is essential to working with groups who are themselves confronting chaos.

This also reminded me of a recent chat with Anne McCrossan, where she talked about (if I remember this correctly) the wisdom of cocktails. With the benefit of the odd cocktail, our world is slightly destabilised in an interesting way that admits new possibilities. Whatever your views on cocktails as a method, there’s something vital about a bit of instability.

I throw out a lot of loose thinking on twitter, but I noticed this one got a little bit of retweet action, perhaps because it struck the same chord: meetings often have to break down to break through.

Kirkegaard famously said that life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. It occurs to me that the choice to move forwards physically involves introducing a little instablity. That’s what infants are playing with as they learn to walk. Parents supporting those infants try to make that process of falling over safe enough to be fun but not so safe that there’s no learning.

I’ve done quite a bit of facilitation training this year, loads of it with Viv. We’ve pushed to get the sponsors to accept less emphasis on learning lots of techniques and tips in favour of lots of activities where participants try stuff out. One area where we play around a lot is the “difficult people” situation.

We resist offering standard tricks for this. So we don’t offer formulaic models for managing difficult people, however comprehensively researched. Instead, we ask people to recall or imagine their encounters with the inevitable impossible participant and then recreate it as an improv scene, and ask them to play it out. And then we play around, asking them to try and play it in different ways. Or we introduce “tagging” where other participants step into the scene to try different responses.

If anyone in the audience comes up with a clever analysis, we tend to stop them and say, great, go play that idea out. Funnily, their first response is mild panic – as they realise it’s one thing to do the theory and another to do the the practice.

What this play encourages, I believe, is a growing willingness to try stuff and realise nothing is written.

That feels a lot closer to learning a “core skill” than being able to recite any seven-part formula. Improv often reminds me that to be human is to be able to sense life’s infinite possibilities but often feeling completely stuck.

For me the difficult people are often those who advocate passionately for black-and-white positions. Examples:

– We shouldn’t break into groups, it’s vital that everyone hears everything that’s said!

– Obviously, you should have made sure the coffee was ready before we took a break!

– We could have sorted this out much sooner if you’d used my technique!

These statements often throw me a little. In the moment, the vehemence of the speaker makes me doubt myself. It’s easy to then have an inner demon tell me I’ve been a fool and everyone now thinks I’m an idiot. The trap for me is that I may either collapse and feel ashamed, or push back inelegantly – slipping into my own black-or-white world.

Such challenges, and such discomforts, will never go away – but they will continue to give another chance to try out holding uncertainty with robustness, and possibly grace.

3 thoughts on “Holding uncertainty, living forwards

  1. Kathy Sierra

    Thanks Johnnie. You just gave my brain a jolt with this post. I can think of so many areas where this notion of “robust uncertainty” applies, including pursuits like photography, rock climbing, the game of Go, designing software, and even working with my horses.

    This was the perfect post to start my week. Cheers.

    Reply
  2. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks Neil. That idea of the “anxiety of the new” is important; I run into it a bit when I’m coaching. People come up with a new behaviour and sometimes discount that it’s actually working because it feels unfamiliar.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.